When Nasa first sent lunar probes into space, the world got a glimpse of the moon and Earth in orbit. Recently enhanced, the images star in a new exhibition celebrating five decades of planetary photography

For more than half a century, robot spaceships have swept through our solar system, returning data that has transformed our knowledge of our sister planets. We now know that Venus is an acid-drenched, scorching hell, Mars is desolate and virtually airless, while several of Jupiter’s moons may have liquid oceans below their surfaces.

These missions have provided science with some remarkable revelations, matched only by the equally striking photographs of these alien worlds that have been beamed back to Earth: the braided rings of Saturn; the plumes of water being ejected into space from its moon, Enceladus; and great volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon, Io.

And now the very best, most dramatic of these images are to be displayed at the Natural History Museum, London, in Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System, an exhibition, created by multimedia artist Michael Benson. For the first time, close-up visions of all the worlds that make up the classical solar system will be displayed in one gallery, an event that only became possible with the flyby of the remote, tiny world of Pluto by Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft last summer.

“It is only in the past year that we have completed the initial, detailed survey of the classical solar system,” says Benson, an American photographer and exhibition designer, based in New York. However, the exhibition was not created merely by dusting off old Nasa or European Space Agency photographs before sticking them on the walls of the museum’s Jerwood Gallery. Considerable computer work has been needed to remove interference lines and distortion, while most of the images were created as mosaics assembled from multiple frames. “Some took weeks to assemble,” says Benson.

One example is the print Europa and the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. The former is one of the planet’s main moons; the latter, the Red Spot, is a storm system in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Their juxtaposition in Benson’s carefully framed photograph produces a striking, surprisingly abstract image.

“The US Voyager probes took hundreds of thousands of photographs of Jupiter and its moons and this picture is the result of looking at every single one of these,” says Benson. “I took months to sort through them. Then, one day, I came across a single image of Europa, above Jupiter, looking like a bald head. I went back to the data set and looked for other photographs of the neighbourhood taken at the time and found dozens including one of the Great Red Spot. I then put dozens of these images together, like a jigsaw, to create this landscape. I could have used colour, but decided the image is more striking in black and white.”

By contrast, the exhibition’s final photograph – of Pluto, which orbits the sun at the very edge of the solar system – provides an unexpected, delicately coloured climax to the show. This image was taken from New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto, after sweeping past the dwarf planet on its way into deep space last year, and it revealed a remarkable feature: Pluto is surrounded by a blue right of light.

“In this photograph, the little planet is backlit by the sun and is surrounded by a blue halo, formed by sunlight passing through its atmosphere,” says Benson. “No one expected that. Pluto’s atmosphere is as blue as Earth’s atmosphere. The discovery was one of those beautiful moments of surprise that you get in planetary exploration.”

As to the inspiration for his work, Benson is specific: “In 1968, when I was a kid, my mother took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. It utterly rocked me. It was my first exposure to a masterpiece in an art form that really spoke to me. A year later, we had the first manned moon landings. The combination of that and Kubrick’s film started me on my personal exploration of our place in the universe.”

Intriguingly, one of Benson’s favourite photographs for Otherworlds predates the genesis of his artistic interest in space: a black-and-white print, titled Crescent Moon and Earth, which was taken from one of Nasa’s lunar orbiters. These probes – fitted with spy satellite technology – were launched into lunar orbit in 1966 and 1967, to help pinpoint sites where the Apollo astronauts could land.

In those analogue days, space photography was a tricky business. The lunar orbiters had to snap the moon on 70mm film, which was then developed robotically in orbit, scanned in strips by a photomultiplier and transmitted to Earth, where the strips were recreated and reassembled into full-frame photographs. The results were certainly dramatic, but were disfigured by a venetian blind effect: banding that was produced because the images had been created from strips of photographic material.

However, a few years ago, a group of Californian space enthusiasts formed theLunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, and have taken the original magnetic tapes on which lunar orbiter data was recorded and used software to remove most of the stripes from the probes’ photographs. “I then took one of the images and removed the last vestiges of banding to create Crescent Moon and Earth,” adds Benson.

The result is a breathtaking view of the crescent Earth viewed from space, with the moon – also in crescent phase – in the foreground. It’s one of a cluster of early space photographs that fill the first section of Otherworlds. In total, the 77 images that make up the exhibition represent the visual legacy of the past 50 years’ unmanned space exploration, journeys that, Benson says, demonstrate vividly how a picture or photograph is every bit as powerful as the spoken word or mathematical symbol in conveying knowledge.

It’s a point echoed by Joe Michalski, head scientist for the exhibition. “When scientists propose these missions, they have to provide their political bosses with ideas of what they will discover,” he says. “That is understandable, but in a way, it flies in the face of what exploration is about. Humans suffer because they have limited imaginations. That is why we explore – to discover the unexpected. And that is what this exhibition provides – some of the most glorious and unexpected visions that our solar system can provide.”


(From The Observer, The Guardian‘s Sunday edition)

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